Web Engagement – The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Recently I’ve been seeing ‘an examination’ shall we say of the term Web Engagement Management and the acronym WEM. There is a suggestion that it’s a figment of the fervid imaginations of software vendor marketing departments possibly in collusion with certain analysts and that dreadful things should be done to it’s proponents.

In addition, this week I gave a presentation at GXConnect 2010 – ‘Web Engagement, Marketing Buzzword or Business Imperative’ – and whilst this isn’t a transcript of that presentation I wanted to air this debate. So, is this WEM thing the emperors new clothes, a sharp marketing suit or the boiler suit of the workers on the coal face of getting web stuff done?

I’ll attempt to keep it brief(ish) and I apologize if you are familiar with the subject and I stray into the area of stating the bleedin’ obvious – but bear with me, I wanted to get down the basics.

Let’s start on what I think is the safe ground with E – Engagement. As I have previously said on CMSWire in “Have the Buzzword Magpies Stolen our “Engagement” the word engagement is perfect to describe the the difference between a casual ‘bounce’ visitor and someone who’s listening and interacting with you. The difference between standing on the street corner, shouting random thoughts into a loud hailer and conversation.  If you have ever thought about your audience before tweeting, blogging or publishing content – you have thought about engaging them. Heck – you may even choose to rant against WEM, because that’s what you believe your audience need to hear to engage with you. Extending this to a business context, engagement describes an objective, the reason why you create a website, why you blog and tweet.

So, engagement is about being relevant and to be relevant you need to understand your audience. Understanding is where WEM departs from the mechanics of publishing. This idea of listening is something that is covered  by every contemporary marketing commentator from Seth Godin, David Meerman Scott, Chris Brogan etc etc. These are not snake oil salesman. The level of engagement is also measurable, that helps to make it a business practice. This isn’t new – I’ve also previously referred to the book “Web Engagement” authored by Bill Zoelick (with a forward by Frank Gilbane), published in 2000 and now sadly out of print (mine is a second hand copy). The tools have changed, but it talks about understanding as an essential element of engagement.

As Jeremiah Owyang stated in his blog post in 2007 “Defining “Engagement”:

My working definition:“Engagement indicates the level of authentic involvement, intensity, contribution, and ownership”

It’s possible for me to shorten it to: “Apparent Interest”

I say apparent because someone can be interested and never act on it, measuring that will be difficult. If they act on it, say it, or gesture, then we can measure. I say interest, as I really see engagement the verb of interest.

Engagement Formula:“Attention + Interaction + Velocity + Authority + Relevant Attributes (variable)”

By the way, I could have plucked plenty out of his article, to support this post – I suggest you read the entire thing

This understanding doesn’t necessarily (or maybe very rarely should) come just from a visitors experience with you on the web. Very few organizations communicate or transact with their audience solely over their  website. Therefore the feedback we need to listen to about our brand, product, service, our message (etc) comes via a variety of sources; the social web has gone mainstream and most of us have a story of dealing with an organization over the phone and feeling like what we told them during a web experience went unheard. Understanding our audience is a multi-channel discipline. In writing this I am using feedback from Twitter direct messages and conversations in the pub.

Do you agree so far that we can describe engagement as a measurable business practice and goal?

I’m saving web until last, so what about M for Management? Clearly if you are going to listen and speak, you need some thinking in-between. We need some orchestration that takes what we’ve heard and apply it to what we are going to say. For a multi-product, multi-national company this is complex. A large audience, lots of places to listen, lots of information to process, lots of segments, communities, lots of systems that hold some useful information and lots of places to converse. Like any complex business process or practice there is an opportunity to systemize it, to build processes, to make it repeatable, understood, measureable etc etc.

If we agree that this is true, then, like any complex business problem, we can apply computers. It is therefore perfectly feasible for vendors to claim that they do more than publish content, that their software has this kind of orchestration. That the software can apply insight from data on the audience and manage the way it is published to make it engaging.

So… Engagement Management. Does this sound real and reasonable? Would you agree that it’s something that real people would want to do and would want systems to help them do and not just a marketing hallucination brought on by a Kool Aid sugar rush?

Finally. The W. Web. I use the term Web Engagement as I talk about how we make our websites more engaging and whilst the data that feeds the insight might be multi-channel, the delivery is predominantly over the web.Not necessarily just the corporate website, but to any of the web properties where your audience might be hanging out and the devices they use to access them.

I am also personally wary of alternate terms, like referring to Customer Engagement, not because I consider this term invalid, but because I specialize in a  sub-set of customer engagement, I don’t know how to make a loyalty scheme work, how to do IP warming for an e-mail campaign, where to put a pop up stand in a store or that we should put nappies on a shelf near the beer (or something). But I do know that an engaging and satisfying web experience, is essential to customer service, satisfaction and retention. (I talk abit more about that in You say tomato, I say tomato, you say WEM, I say WEM..)

So far I’ve described WEM as bringing together a number of existing disciplines and technologies, not replacing them. If  WEM isn’t the right term, what do you think we should call this convergence?

From a Web Content perspective, I think we’ve long known that the dynamic delivery or a relevant, engaging web experiences places a special focus on the capabilities of your WCM system. For example you need lots of content, you need metadata, to get lots of content you need something your authors can use and integrate to other systems etc). I agree completely with Jarrod Gingras (of Real Story Group) that vendor claims of WEM capabilities should not dilute, distract or compromise an organizations requirements when selecting a WCM. (I recommend reading his article: Call me a Grinch, but Web CMS is not dead) to engage over the web, you need to get these basics right.

So, as I try and draw this long rambling post to some sort of conclusion – the question I asked at the top of this post was Is this WEM thing the emperors new clothes, a sharp marketing suit or the boiler suit of the workers on the coal face of getting web stuff done?

Emperors new clothes – I don’t think so. I agree that vendor marketing and analysts can whip up the perfect storm that becomes separated from the real needs of the market – there are lots of smart folks that put ECM in that bucket – but I talk to marketers that are facing the challenge that WEM aims to solve, to deliver an engaging experience for the visitor and to feedback valuable marketing data in the process.

A sharp marketing suit – Maybe. I say maybe, because I think it depends on whose wearing the suit. We need to define the business practices that WEM touches, develop a benchmark set of requirements that organizations need and then we can contrast the capabilities of software vendors, systems integrators and agencies against those. We’ll then be able to say for sure if someone is just wearing a new suit over some tired old software, or if they have the boiler suit that the marketer needs.

A boiler suit – I think so. People are living and breathing this stuff, some of them may not call it Web Engagement – but they sure as hell care about their audience, how to offer great customer service, how to differentiate from their competitors or maybe how to get you to spend a few extra dollars.

At the Gilbane group we are embarking on something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time and define the requirements and capabilities of web engagement. (To get a high level of what we are thinking, take a look at: Introducing the Web Engagement Capability model). As you will see in this research, this isn’t just about buying software products, but about organization preparedness, the integration of business processes, data and expertise.

In closing – as an industry we understand the requirements, scope and how to compare content management solutions, but I think today WEM is slightly nebulous and we need to work on that. We need to figure out what the requirements are for ‘the thing between our content and our visitor’, what the market has to offer to satisfy them, how we measure the success of these solutions and how software buyers should compare them. If we can’t do this, then I’ll concede that a bunch of us are wandering down the high street naked.

I have run long here as usual and if you’ve stuck around to read this far – thank you, I really appreciate it and would very much like to hear your comments.

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15 thoughts on “Web Engagement – The Emperor’s New Clothes?

  1. I think the majority of organisations who are ever likely to be serious about the web got the message that their sites needed to be more than just brochureware and focused on the visitor’s needs around 10 years ago. A lot also dipped their toes into the ideas of providing ‘more personalised’ web experiences and pulled them out again very sharply when it became apparent it often wasn’t what their visitors wanted and got in the way of them achieving their goals in visiting a site.

    The general consensus around the WEM approach appears to be that it is not about the technology but about the process and philosophy. This then takes us into the realm of change management and cultural change – the things that will strike paralysing fear into those responsible for moving forward online initiatives at some point in their careers. So when vendors and analysts start ‘preaching’ about how the processes of managing information flows and web visitor interaction need to improve, particularly with the advent of Social Media, I think practitioners are entitled to respond “isn’t this what we’ve been struggling to achieve since the outset of the commercial web? – tell us something we don’t already know”

    1. Hi James,

      It’s not clear if you are agreeing with me and restating my points or if you think it’s something I missed – so just to be clear, in my post and in other writing I have never claimed that aspirations of Web Engagement were new. I have made reference more than once that Frank Gilbane and Bill Zoellick were writing about it a decade ago and as you know at that time I worked for a vendor that was (arguably) on the vanguard of these technologies. I also made the point that this wasn’t about technologies, but is as much about people and process – absolutely.

      I have to say, I don’t really recognize your experience. When I speak about Web Engagement or when we (Gilbane) are hired to help guide our industry clients on their web strategy I certainly don’t hear “tell us something we don’t already know” and I’ve been doing this a while now. Clearly in a blog post like this (that has the caveat of ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’) it’s difficult to put all the meat on the bones and none of what I am saying here is fresh for everyone – my point is that, (as you seem to recognize with ‘struggling to achieve since the outset’) – the business objective of web engagement is real, maybe not new, but real nonetheless.

      We are currently working with two very large, blue chip organizations, with strategies led by bright, bright folks and whilst I think your ‘paralysing fear’ point is certainly a valid consideration – this has been easily mitigated and outweighed by the forces for change in these organizations. There is, of course, a challenge in bringing folks together, pulling insight out of the data, figuring out how to apply this to the web experience, social media strategies, putting the right technology in place, figuring out what the audience really want, improving user adoption etc etc – but the organizations I meet are not conceding the defeat you describe. Also, whilst I might be new here, I have learn’t enough to avoid the consulting technique of “preaching” – apologies if my blogging sounds like that.

      I also think the changes that have happened over the last ten years (and I am not claiming to say anything new here either); the mainstream socialization of the web, use of the web as research tool and changing attitudes to sharing views and personal information (etc) – adds a new dimension to our aspirations of a decade ago. Even if you only focus on WCM – I really think that in lots and lots of organizations, only now are we realizing the promise of web content management that we were all championing all those year ago – as (one small example) finally authoring content breaks out of the chosen skilled few.

      I could go on – and normally do – but at this rate I’ll be writing my next blog post. Thanks James for your contribution, good to see you back on-line and active in our community.



  2. No problem Ian.

    As you’ve rightly observed, this is just one view from one set of implementation experiences and I’m sure there are many more that need to be taken into account in a debate like this.

    Personally, I’d like to hear Tony Byrne’s full view on this as he triggered the current commentary at the Gilbane event by saying that WEM was a term created in the Vendor/Analyst echo chamber. Obviously I just caught snippets of the panel debate from the tweets but I also had a useful twitter exchange with Scott in which more of what was said at the event became clearer.

    My last blog post and comments above were an attempt to understand better why the acronym and particularly the term ‘engagement’ seems to antagonise people so much.

    Anyway, let’s hope this doesn’t just turn into another echo chamber and we get some input from other practitioners on the topic of ‘engagement’.



    1. James,

      I wasn’t at Gilbane Boston either, but in general I am slightly surprised by the position Real Story Group seem to be taking on this. I would have thought they’d be keen to put these technologies under their microscope – outside of a distracting side note in their WCM reports. I think it would be great for the industry if they did and I too would love to see some meat on those sound bites.

      The antagonism – the reaction I get, it’s a minority, people talk about echo chambers and they can work both ways – you can get a disproportionate (and quite possibly healthy) resistance to anything that has the slightest whiff of marketing from some folks. If it’s a resistance to dressing up a shoddy WCM into something it’s not, I’ll be front a and center with Peter and his poison darts (although I possibly wouldn’t tweet my murderous intentions). If my damn backtweets plugin was working, you’d see some of that positive feedback.

      Thanks mate,


  3. +1 to what James said, particularly this gem:

    “isn’t this [WEM] what we’ve been struggling to achieve since the outset of the commercial web? – tell us something we don’t already know”

    This was exactly the reaction I had when I first heard of “WEM” – that the vendor/analyst echo chamber had trotted out a fancy new acronym for a decade (or more!) old practice.

    To me WEM *retch*, while important, is just one aspect of the broader practice of WCM, and anyone who claims to have been doing WCM without at least being aware of it was a few tools short of a workshop. Note: this doesn’t mean that engagement is always a part of all WCM initiatives – there are plenty of web sites where this type of engagement is irrelevant or inappropriate.

    That said, I’m willing to be a little magnanimous in this case and let the marketeers have their fun and pretend to have invented some fundamentally new, paradigm-shifting, game-changing market segment. After all, the other ways of revving up the same old products are so much more difficult – they involve R&D and other distasteful, expensive exercises! So much easier to just slap a new label on the same tired old stuff and call it a day!

    1. Ah Peter, welcome – nice to see your argument has moved on from killing us all with poison darts. 🙂

      Firstly, could you define ‘this type of engagement’ for me? On the one hand you seem to suggest that anyone throwing up a website needs to at least take a cursory glance at why they are doing it and for whom – and this is what we should have been doing for roughly forever – agree with that. On the other hand, you suggest that there is a different kind of engagement that is irrelevant and inappropriate.

      I also don’t feel it s a subset of WCM – certainly not the tool set. You can have the finest content management publishing process, driven by tools that have our friends at Real Story Group weak at the knees, but you won’t necessary be delivering something that the visitor cares about, needs, or fulfills any of the reasons why you have a website – apart from maybe having something pretty to show your colleagues/the boss/your competitors. Web Engagement is not just about tools.

      But, from a tool perspective we do need a way to differentiate core WCM functionality (that, as I think you rightly point out, may adequately serve someone’s web engagement objectives) from the additional stuff we are now seeing vendors offering. Things like variant A/B testing or visitor analytics. In what bucket do we put this stuff? I don’t think we can lump this into the capability stack of our expectations of a WCM system. How do we avoid folks getting distracted by these shiny elements and ensure they are satisfying their original WCM needs first? How do we help buyers understand whether they have these requirements and then how do we asses the best fit? Are there other vendors they should look at to augment the WCM? There seems to be a twilight world of features, functionality and requirements that I want to understand – I’ve called it the Engagement Tier in the past – but it’s more than WCM whatever moniker you give it.

      I am a firm believer that getting the WCM basics right, of finally delivering on the promise of this industry is the most important part of web engagement. It’s all very well gaining a great understanding of your audience, but if your organization takes a week to publish a content item – then forget it.

      Same tired old products…? Hmm… no. Maybe we share the same aspirations that we had a decade ago, but the industry as a whole has moved on. Yes, some of this sounds similar to a decade old Vignette product and mantra – but back then it was a big bag of bits, some slideware and an introduction to a major systems integrator – who will relieve you of any remaining money you or your VC had. Yes, there are some vendors that are slapping ‘engagement’ into every briefing slide deck (my point about the suits) and claiming that their tired architecture is what we mean by Web Engagement. But, there are others – who have invested in great architectures or always had them – who are ready and ft for purpose, there are niche players doing new and interesting things (where was social media monitoring even five years ago?) etc etc – stuff that is within reach of just about everyone throwing up a website.

      And – as I asked in my post – what would you call it? What would you call this cocktail of publishing content, understanding your audience with a dash of personalized, multi-channel delivery? What would you call this business practice, this thing that you and James believe we have been doing for ten years and that ten years ago Bill Zoellick (and presumably others) called Web Engagement?

      Anyway – thanks for your comment mate. When you are not suggesting I should be killed I enjoy your skepticism. I recall when WCM was seen as an evil invention of marketing, yet we use it now with affection and maybe the world would have been a better place if more folks were saying “hang on a minute” as our industry took some interesting turns over the last decade.



  4. Ian….

    Really nice piece…

    So first of all, when compared to the ridiculously (and I mean silly ridiculous) number of useless acronyms produced by the technical side of the Analyst/Vendor echochamber – I think we in marketing are not doing too badly.

    I really fail to see why people are so gagged by the term. Speaking of Gilbane Boston specifically, I personally think Tony was just trying to be his wonderfully skeptical, grumpy analyst self – which in its own way is a form of “engagement management”. Call it CEM Conference Engagement Management. As we marketers would say he was definitely “on brand” at the show.

    Despite all that, I would answer this:

    “Isn’t this [WEM] what we’ve been struggling to achieve since the outset of the commercial web? – tell us something we don’t already know”

    … this way – No. It’s not.

    Certainly the tools have gotten more replete (if not overly complex) over the last ten years. But more importantly – the thing that has fundamentally changed is the ease by which consumers are publishing and sharing content. This changes the game for marketers – and means that (tools or not) we need more effective ways by which to manage the *experience* we are trying to create.

    That may seem at its outset to be an esoteric difference. But my experience with many clients is that while they may be quite adept at “talking” – they are not nearly as adept at “listening”. And, more importantly drawing the insight out of what they’re hearing (both from analytics, content testing, and qualitative comments) that empowers them to do something about it.

    So, yeah, this is a new process, facilitated by new combinations (or improved) tools. At the end of the day I don’t care what the hell we call it. All I know is that it’s important to get it right.

    1. Thank you Robert for your comment and for eloquently sharing your experience. Love “CEM”, you make my point so much better about ranting against WEM as a way of engaging. I appreciate you stopping by.



  5. @ Robert – I think your last blog post http://adaptivemarketer.com/ gives a more rounded assessment of ‘engagement’ than your comment above and I think you make some excellent points in it.

    In terms of your comment, I would argue back that ‘Yes. It is’. Consumers were publishing and sharing content quite easily back in the 1990s via newsgroups, forums and lobby sites. And, like today, they were empowered enough to get the mainstream media behind them.

    Just because it’s got a hell of lot noisier out there doesn’t make it a ‘game changer’ it just makes it a lot easier to misinterpret, over-react and shoot yourself in the foot.

    I think you sum that up superbly in your blog post by describing it as Integrated Engagement Delusions. This has now become my new favourite acronym 🙂

    1. James,

      I think you are stretching it a bit to suggest that “Consumers were publishing and sharing content quite easily back in the 1990s via newsgroups, forums and lobby sites”. My Mum wasn’t, but now she is on Facebook. My wife wasn’t, the Internet was a curiosity, not part of her everyday life like it is today. What percentage of people sought out a newsgroup before they made any purchase compared to today? I certainly didn’t – did you? The mainstream adoption of a world previously only inhabited by the technically literate IS as important as advances in software or the aspirations we had a decade ago.

      I kinda wrote about this in my post about WordPress I make the analogy of what I imagine to be the game changing influence of the cheapest car in the world (Tata Nano) on the transportation of a family as a step up from a moped. There is a similar parallel here, just because the car was invented a hundred years ago and was mainstream in some communities (like ours) in the 1960’s and we realized the dream of travelling great distances – doesn’t undermine the impact of the same technology becoming mainstream in a new community. More cars doesn’t just mean more traffic, or in the web context ‘a hell of a lot noisier’ – it changes communities, infrastructure, human relationships etc etc…

      Although I absolutely agree with you, Robert writes a fine blog and for other folks reading this – here is the full URL to the article: http://adaptivemarketer.com/2010/12/are-we-tilting-at-engagement/



  6. @ Ian – you’ve asked several times what would we call this thing we’ve been doing for 10 years (or more)…

    My answer is why make it more complicated than it needs to be? What is wrong with the generic description that encompasses everything we are doing in this field on a daily basis, namely ‘Information Management’

    If you can tell me where, at a fundamental level, what you describe as WEM differs from Information Management then I’ll gladly reconsider my position on this topic.

  7. As I said Ian, it is a lot noisier out there today and that, in itself, is perhaps the biggest challenge. Regardless of the extent of web activity back then, the mechanism of primary feedback, good and bad, was email and I would argue that in terms of really listening to and interacting with your audience, email remains the most effective form of interaction today. Again, I think the big risk here is overcomplicating something that for the sake of organisation focus, efficiency and effectiveness needs to be kept as simple as possible.

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